Beneath the Bureaucracy, the Beach

a conversation between Fernando García Dory and Chris Fite-Wassilak

When is an artist not an artist? Socially engaged artists constantly run
the risk of being labeled as “just” activists or social workers. Spanish
artist Fernando García Dory’s paths follow tracks faintly parallel to the
expanded, city-based social interventions practice of WochenKlausur
or Superflex’s consumer critiques, while they instead run out of the
cities and into the hills. Like a mountain-roaming Stephen Willats,
García Dory works with shepherds, nomads, and the uneasy relationship
of rural and urban spaces, placing social and organizational structures
themselves as aesthetic objects. Negotiating and tracing these
invisible lines, he asserts the role of the artist as a cultural free agent,
moving between official agencies and more informal, nebulous
arrangements to offer ambiguous, and sometimes contradictory, solutions.
García Dory alternates between Madrid, the capital of Spain’s
governmental and official art world, and the farm he inherited from
his family in the mountainous Asturias to the north. He is involved in
the Art and Culture Commission of Plataforma Rural, an alliance
including Spanish farmers’ unions, consumers’ associations, development
NGOs and environmental organizations, as well as the Spanish
Shepherds Federation and the Spanish Artisan Cheesemakers’
Association. He is also a trustee of the World Alliance of Nomadic and
Transhumant Pastoralists, an organization resulting from a meeting of
nomadic shepherds he instigated in 2007. Drawn to his ephemeral and
largely optimistic work through a mutual appreciation of ecology and
cheesemaking, I met him in Madrid at the conference Campo Adentro
—Inland: Art, Agricultures & Countryside, a weekend that he conceived
of as a starting point for the discussion of a so-called “ruralist artist discourse.”
Perhaps appropriately, this conversation took place in fragments,
both in Madrid and over email between London and the
countryside of Mallorca.

Chris Fite-Wassilak: You describe yourself as a “neo-pastoralist and
agro-ecologist,” but readily acknowledge the contradictions inherent
in working as an artist among these issues. Would you agree that art’s
dominant ideologies are urban? If so, is that something you are seeking
to undermine?
Fernando García Dory: If I have to define my work, I will say that it’s
about contradiction. Take, for example, the Shepherds School started in
2004. It’s about the impossibility of the ideal. Simultaneously, it’s
premised on the fact that this unfulfilled ideal is operative, that it still
has an impact. I’m constantly moving between the modern and postmodern—
I understand the postmodern as an era when inaction or critical
examination of actions makes you question purpose and means,
while being simultaneously shaped by a need, an urgency. For my
intervention at the UN Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome
(FAO), for example, I gained access as an official delegate. I sat in as a
delegate of one country—I think it was Tuvalu—and started to use the
internal messaging service to send other delegates written notes. Their
communication system is still very analog, with women carrying
pieces of paper to their intended destination, which you indicate by
saying “Send this to Trinidad and Tobago or Russia please.” I wrote,
“Nothing is real for us but hunger.” We can elaborate discursively, but
at some point we have to keep in mind the other ways to perceive life.
With shepherds and cheesemakers, I also feel the contingency and the
urgency of the disappearance of their way of life.
In 1999, I started the cooperative “Bajo el Asfalto está la Huerta”
[Under the Asphalt Lies the Garden], a community-based agricultural
system of production and distribution that is still running. That was
the first time I realized that such an endeavor was a work of art in
itself. I always find amazing the ways in which humans arrange time
and space with activity to sort out things, the interconnection of different
agencies towards a goal. I arrived at the feeling that systems
themselves have an ethic, and aesthetic value.
In Spain, with a kind of new-rich provincialism, we have an art
system that only looks to the city as fertile ground for inspiration,
intervention, and circulation. This is based in ignorance, if not disdain,
of other environmental configurations, including the rural. Yet,
the rural is actually a low-density urban realm where nature
breathes a bit more through the interstices. The exploration of these
interstices gives us the possibility to experience another way of life,
which has been embodied by indigenous and peasant cultures.
These inherently autonomous cultures, though, have been a clear
target of the Western-industrial model of development, as “awkward
classes” to be exterminated. These cultures, now more than
ever, have to be reconsidered or reinvented. As such, if I try to undermine
anything, it is the brutal shortsightedness of the urban
lifestyle and the way it looks down on the rural. This includes the
current neopastoral narratives of ecofashion and the attempts to
put to rest the countryside’s conflicted reality in idyllic postcards.
CFW: So, you work in a context where the relationship of art to pastoral
ideology is uneasy, if not branded largely as naïve idealism.
You also seem quite wary of the strength of nostalgia as threat in
the discourses you are exploring and creating.
FGD: I think it’s a wise suspicion. The pastoral ideology was also a
tool of oppression for rural cultures that found themselves represented
by cultural and power elites. We could trace a parallel with
the postcolonial analyses of center-periphery relations, and see orientalism
and exoticism in the time of the imperial expansions as
not so different from the creation of pastoral genres.

CFW: But can it be cast as just a dichotomy? While they are different
ways of life, they are not necessarily opposing. People and produce
from the countryside come to the city; a mutual exchange is already
going on. Are we not setting up false oppositions when in fact we have
contrast rather than dialectic?
FGD: As in postcolonial readings, multiple drives converge in a complex
process of relation with that “other.” As we increasingly venture into the
unpredictable flow of events in this late-capitalist era, we grow to yearn
for the stability and safe “home” that is often represented by the rural.
Here, the rural is a set of immutable traditions that we want to preserve,
a conservative attachment to something we value more, like a folk
scene with traditional clothes. It’s an unachievable goal, which leads to
grotesque re-enactments and the Disneyfication of the countryside, if
not the more dangerous, exclusionary “Blut und Boden” ideologies. I
work with cheesemakers’ and shepherds’ unions. Every day I see people
having to quit because political and legal systems don’t allow them to
keep their jobs. It’s not about saying everyone should go to the countryside;
but we should allow people who want to stay or get there to do so.
Of course, I am worried about nostalgia as a main engine for actions. But
nostalgia is not reserved for the countryside. We can also be nostalgic
about other things: I’m currently working on a project about endangered
occupations, to put an ironic perspective on nostalgia. I’m working
with Madrid’s last “Hand Car Wash” station. My project seeks to
maintain it, playing with the futility of fixation on past forms under the
guise of the added-value concept of “tradition.” It might be silly to
defend the hand washing of cars. However, when you move the same
argument and action to another subject, you then realize that they may
be pointless or useless. If you can defend shepherds, why not defend car
washers? Who has assigned the difference and why?
CFW: Recently, you wrote about your Shepherds School project as
“ostensibly an opportunity to get back to the land and manage the
resources directly as tools of social change and to subvert prevalent
cultural values; instead it highlights the weakness inherent in such a
simplistic approach.”
FGD: Microkingdom of Utopia: A Shepherds School has been giving
young people the opportunity to become shepherds for the last five
years. It entails a course and a five-month trial or internship period.
Many of the initially-willing participants decide not to go on. In fact,
only one has become a shepherd. There are diverse reasons for this.
When I wrote those lines, I was a bit sensitive about the reality: each
year, the applicants who showed the most promise, that is, those who
demonstrated their desire to live and work in the mountains, ended up
becoming the most reluctant. Even if the strategy is still valid, the conditions
are not yet favorable.
CFW: Part of the project involved appropriating a structure from Rirkrit
Tiravanija’s reproduction of his house in Thailand, The House the Cat
Built, 2009, and using it as a meeting point in a gallery for the shepherds.
Walead Beshty remarked that Tiravanija’s work and the communal
ideal of relational aesthetics “run the risk of transforming the
communal into the estranged, but more importantly, they naturalize
social repressions, locating them as the ur-text of experience.”1 What
did you find in your re-enacted model? Do you think your work runs
the same risk of, say, preaching to the converted?
FGD: The installation Museum’s Pastoral: A Meeting of the Federation of
Shepherds was a kind of tableau vivant, a micro-scale attempt to build
a social movement in the LABoral Center in Gijon in 2009. After the
establishment of the Spanish Shepherds Federation—FEP in Spanish—
linking sixteen associations from different corners of the country, I used
the museum’s commission to organize that meeting. I collected articles
from the shepherds to make the first issue of the FEP bulletin, as communication
tool to reach both shepherds in remote rural areas and
urban audiences. The Assemblies Module built from wood reclaimed
from Tiravanija’s work was the meeting place for the FEP members. The
shepherds initially found the space a bit cold. They knew that museum
visitors could be looking at them and listening. It was a great experience
for them to be able to talk about their lives and the problems they face.
In turn, visitors seemed to empathize with this model school of citizenship
and horizontal politics. I was very aware that this could be seen
as a form of social art pornography. Here, however, as the work of the
Federation goes outside and beyond the museum, I regarded the collaboration
with the art institution as symbiosis rather than parasitism. The
Shepherds Federation is a bluff, much like in poker. While this is a small
group of shepherds, this cultural strategy has had a real impact: we now
have a position on the advisory board of the Ministry of Farming. It
might be quixotic theoretically and practically, but it also creates a
potentially long-term focus point for consideration and debate.
CFW: What connects your various projects? How do you see the continuum
between the very rooted, territory-bound life of the farmer and
shepherd with the more ambivalent, fluid identities of nomadic peoples
which you convened to a meeting in 2007? Currently, you’re working
on a mobile cheese making unit for Haus der Kulturen der Welt in
Berlin and at Grizedale Arts in the north of England. How does this
mobility operate?
FGD: Mobility is, together with knowledge and organizational structures,
a major point of interest for me. I believe that the role of the artist
is negentropic, that is, that the artist should build up new and more
complex compounds instead of focusing on disintegration or the inertia
of entropy. A nomadic ideal is built into postindustrial capitalist societies:
move around, carry almost nothing, run light, be liquid—the rich
nomad as global player. This ideology erases nomadic, pastoralist, peasant,
and indigenous cultures. The Grizedale project is about tailoring a
cheese for Cumbria that satisfies the farmers, tourists, and the art crowd
alike, based on tasting workshops that I will do with these groups. For
me, a mobile cheesemaking unit is playing on those contradictions:
making cheese entails changing the state of matter from liquid to solid;
it is microbiological livestock management and an ancient pastoralist
biotechnology. The wish to learn it fast, in one morning workshop, deals
with our wish for instant gratification. The “authentic” foods we yearn
for could also be accessible, self-made, and not elite gastronomic merchandise.
It’s a way to reconnect with food makers and the problems
they face. Food is therefore more than a political tool, it has become politics
in itself.
CFW: Working with organizational systems and agricultural produce,
your practice seems to hover between an almost federal institutional
critique and a pastoral realism. Would your role as an artist then sit
comfortably alongside that of an administrator?
FGD: It’s about opening a generative space in the countryside, that is, a
space where culture might be produced, rather than simply vertically
integrated as a place of reception and participation. This form of horizontal creation and consumption is the norm in popular cultural
production—think of flamenco, the dance that was developed in
the nomadic gypsy communities that settled in the Southern
Iberian peninsula, which relies on the free interpretation of
shared codes. While the good flamenco dancer can expertly
improvise, much is shared and co-generated.
Nowadays, the role of the artist is for the most part managerial.
Public relations, project management and application, and various
paperwork consume about eighty percent of the artist’s
time—curiously, this is also the case with today’s farmers. This is
something to be publicly acknowledged, because many still want
to believe in the figure of the artist we have inherited from
Romanticism, that is, someone devoted solely to creativity. Nor
should we forget that, despite all the vaunted virtues of so-called
collaborative, public artwork, the artist always ends up having to
do most of the “dirty work” management. The artist has to cook,
prepare the table, and do the dishes for a determined social subject
to partake in the meal—a humble position that doesn’t conform
to the idea of the unique, genius artist. By pushing the
managerial dimension to the limit, I seek to define the limitation
of that form of art. I confront myself with that exhausting task as
the opposite of creative process.
On the other hand, I firmly believe that artists who attempt to
influence the world have at some point to make compromises
with the current ruling structures. Quite often, past avant-gardes
remained inspiring children’s games because they lacked the
commitment to set up efficient transformative organizations and
procedures. My experience of working within national state
structures or supranational bodies such as the UN Convention to
Combat Desertification (UNCCD) or FAO has been as fascinating
for me as the beekeeping that I learned from my father and
neighbors. Social insects are interesting to study as a state organization;
states, as a kind of corporation, have the capacity and
power to convert a wish or an idea into an operative object or system.
For me, that is the perfect Gesamtkunstwerk, the total artwork
dream of utopian artists. In the end, I find structured efforts
of consensus and coordination within the mess of mankind and
individual agency quite moving and tender.
1. Walead Beshty, “Neo-Avantgarde and the Service Industry: Notes on the
Brave New World of Relational Aesthetics,” Texte zur Kunst 59 (September
accessed December 10, 2010.
Chris Fite-Wassilak is a writer and curator based in London and a
frequent contributor to ART PAPERS and Frieze. His recent curatorial
project Quiet Revolution was toured by the Hayward Gallery. He is
currently developing a project with David Beattie and Karl Burke
for the Galway Arts Centre.